I USED TO fume when ultra-Orthodox men would refuse to shake my hand. The idea that men and women shouldn’t touch, that we are a distraction or a temptation or some other nonsense angered me to my core. But, being a woman, I have been socialized to accommodate. I learned to laugh it off, telling myself that I shouldn’t take 1915 Polish cosplayers too seriously.
The shift in public discourse about sexism has awoken an old resentment. No, a man refusing to shake my hand is not the same as a man masturbating in front of me on a train (and, yes, I have the experience to make that compare/contrast statement). But moral equivalency has no place in this discussion.
At the heart of every #MeToo offense is the underlying message that women are routinely and systematically treated differently. Every damn day of our lives.
Everyone reading about Harvey Weinstein understands (I hope) the egregiousness of his actions. With every new tale of manipulation and malfeasance, good men shudder in disbelief, while most women nod knowingly.
So, it would seem as though the Haredi instinct to keep women at more-than-an-arm’s length is a good solution. There is even a term for this defensive stance: “The Mike Pence Rule.” Named for the politician who refuses to dine alone with any woman who is not his wife, this secular version of the Ultra-Orthodox maneuver has started to infect board rooms and offices where good men don’t want to be mistaken for bad men.
I know we’re all new to the concept of women being humans, so let me break it down for you: Denying us access to opportunities for advancement is not the opposite of raping us. You can actually meet with us, throw back a beer with us and – gasp – even shake our hands, without sexualizing the experience. In fact, you really, really should.
Women are all kinds of awesome. We have brains, which think thoughts. Some of these thoughts are super amazing. Radioactivity, Bluetooth technology, the possibility of interstellar space travel. Ask us about them sometime. But, like, with your pants on.
If you think being refused a spot at the bar or a closed-door meeting is insignificant, there are some stats that will surprise you. To find out about those stats, you’ll have to ask a woman, specifically Kim Elsesser, a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, whose recent Op/Ed in the LA Times states, “Without access to beneficial friendships and mentor relationships with executive men, women won’t be able to close the gender gap that exists in most professions.”
She goes on to say, “I can hear the objections now: Women can’t have it both ways. They can’t tell men to be cautious around them, and then complain that they feel left out because men are behaving too cautiously. But I believe we can have it both ways. Men and women can maintain appropriate boundaries at work and develop professional friendships and mentor relationships. It’s the only way women will reach parity with men in the workplace.”
I agree, and – contrary to my non-handshaking Ultra-Orthodox brethren – so does the Jewish faith. Far from advocating the sexually charged separation of men and women, Judaism actually teaches that all people are worthy of respect and should be treated with dignity. Regardless of our plumbing. This inherently means that we are equal beings. Humans. Fellow homo-sapiens whose opinions you should seek, whose promotions you should advocate.
And whose hands you should definitely shake.
Mayrav Saar is a writer based in Los Angeles.